Category Archives: Mental health

Speeding heart

The thudding of my heart is no drum. It is a watch – a clock – a time piece.

When it speeds up, the world moves faster. The archival footage that my brain takes appears to be incapable of likewise speeding. It cannot keep up. My eyes steadily churn out a film, meanwhile the time axis condenses, crunching up the bottom of my graph into wiggles and wobbles. The resulting memories are choppy, zipping from moment to moment.

Without my hearing it or feeling it, my heart fast forwards through my ruminations. I sit and stew on worries, folding them and unfolding them along well-worn crease lines. As I dramatize the shocking futures in Technicolour, my heart must be thudding along like a steam engine, because I can remember nothing from these times. They vanish. Hours upon hours of my life have been stolen by anxiety driven storytelling. I am a hundred years older for all the time that gets sucked into this worm hole.

What is it that wakes me from my reveries? I usually stare at walls or screens, with nothing passing my eyes that is visible to anyone else. What pops my motors back into place, and chases away the thief? Thank you, whatever you are out there. I’d be lying in a crypt by now were it not for you, and still the worries would be flashing across my imagination, over and over, repeated and exaggerated til the end of time.

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Owlbears and stage fright

This week, I was at a conference – an academic conference, mind you. I was presenting my research to experts in my field. Conferences are exhilarating, but they are terrifying as well. They involve a great deal of socializing, networking, and of course, public speaking. For someone who generally practices none of these activities in her day-to-day life, you can imagine that I suck at all of these tasks. I could be worse, and I certainly imagine myself to be worse, but socializing, networking, and public speaking all scare me to death. Plus I have to travel long distances (i.e. fly) to most conferences, including this one, so I feel like I’m Indy in a pit of snakes.

The most anxiety inducing aspect was undoubtedly the presentation. In their infinite wisdom, the conference organizers placed me directly after one of the luminary figures in my field, who was also presenting at the conference. I was already a basket case – and now she was going to present and it would be, at best, a tough act to follow.

By the time her presentation began, I was shaking. I was scribbling nonsense on my scrap paper. I had gone to the bathroom three times, gone for a walk, and babbled to the session moderator about how much I’d practiced. The moderator smiled politely, letting me gush about how I had my presentation available on two USB keys, email, and a laptop, with correct adaptors and power supply, etc., so even if this copy didn’t work I surely had one that did and could I test my sound please…

Once the session began, though, I was bound in my chair, immobilized and forced to watch my panic rise and fall over and over like a sadistic roller coaster. Thank God lunch was staying down. I kept repeating my CBT training – if I panic, I panic, I’ve done it before. I will still present, so help me God, if I panic. I can do that. Oh God panic. Doesn’t matter. It simply is there, and it will go away, yep, look at it go away, down down down and down and UP oh GOD I’m presenting fuck all bugger fuck.

I scratched through my scribbling pad.

It was then that I began to write down a word in large letters, slowly and carefully. It had been supplied to me by my wonderful partner Patrick the previous night. People always say: oh, think of everyone in underwear. But as everyone who has ever tried that knows, that really doesn’t help. But Patrick had a better idea. I heard him saying it as I formed the word on the pad: OWLBEARS. Imagine a little owlbear peering over people’s shoulders.

This was sheer brilliance.

For those who don’t know, owlbears are a Dungeons and Dragons beast, with the body of a bear and the head of an owl. Why did this strange creature come to mind? Because of Wil Wheaton and Tabletop.

The previous evening, Patrick and I rewatched an episode of Tabletop, specifically the one where they play Lords of Waterdeep, a board game that we both love. Even more exciting is that Patrick Rothfuss was playing, and Felicia Day, and Brandon Laatsch. What a stellar combo! (Watching people play board games over the internet might sound dull, but until you try it, don’t rule it out.) In this game, a quest card shows up: Domesticate Owlbears. OWLBEARS. DOMESTICATED. THE WORLD IS AWESOME.

Anyway, cue the Tabletop editors throwing a billion images of owlbears into the rest of the episode. Owlbears over shoulders. Owlbears censoring middle fingers. Owlbears not being harmed in the making of this episode…You get the idea. But OWLBEARS!

As I wrote this down, I began to smile. Smiling is the best cure for any bad feeling. Even a fake smile (no really, there’s research). But an owlbear smile is always a real smile.

So I watched a little owlbear peer over the shoulder of a distinguished academic and make googly eyes at her keyboard. I watched an owlbear peek at me over the moderator’s shoulder as I began to talk. And I watched a team of owlbears pile on a very irritating and disturbing loud talker during a presentation later in the day. Owlbears hung out with me all day at the conference, and gave me a smile.

So I’m writing this to say thank you. Thank you so much to Wil Wheaton, and to the editors of Tabletop. You saved a terrified young academic from stage fright, and have undoubtedly improved every future conference I attend. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for easing my anxiety. I’m spending less time worrying about how I did, or catastrophizing about the future, and more time feeling confident and focused, in the company of a band of owlbears.

Traditions and habits

Traditions are important to me. One tradition I hold dear is spending the minute of silence at 11am on November 11th in remembrance of the fallen soldiers from wars past and present. My grandfather served in the war, although we were blessed (or lucky, whichever you prefer) that he lived through it. I think of him, during the 1 minute. He died before I could remember him clearly, when I was 4 years old. Perhaps I am supposed to be thinking of those who died in the war, and I do think of them, and rededicate myself to peaceful living, I also think of him, just saying a spiritual hello once a year.

The trouble is, with living abroad, that people have different traditions and it’s hard to keep up. In the UK, Remembrance Day (or just as often, Armistice Day), is held on whatever Sunday is closest to the 11th, and most services are all done then. This can be really confusing for someone who is used to being able to find a service on the actual day, the 11th. In other words, I missed it this year. And I feel devastated.

Traditions are a public form of habit. We have turkey at Christmas because it’s traditional. We kiss at New Year’s because it’s traditional. We give birthday presents because it’s traditional. It isn’t particularly logical. We just do it. Sure, there are historical reasons why dance partners are a man and a woman, but why do we keep doing it and almost semi-enforcing it? Because it’s traditional.

You can get away with traditions in the way you can’t get away with habits, or worse, ticks and ‘behaviours’. The bride wears white at a wedding – it’s traditional. The bride washes her hands seven times an hour – it’s a destructive behaviour. If she doesn’t wear white, everyone is shocked. If she doesn’t wash her hands, she is devastated. The reaction is the same, only more personal.

What about shaking hands when you meet someone? It’s obviously not required (many other cultures bow, for instance) – it’s traditional. It’s habit. But smoking is a habit, and it’s bad. Quadruple checking every light switch is off is a habit, and it’s bad. Avoiding leaving the house without your lorazepam is a habit, and it’s bad. I’m not being opaque here – mental illness related habits are bad. They are ‘behaviours’ (and ‘destructive’ ones at that), not traditions.

But those behaviours are interrupting people’s lives! you exclaim. Sure, for some people. But there are lots of people who have learned to live with their ‘behaviours’ and incorporated them into their lives. They may not wish they were there, but then again, I never liked Halloween candy, so wishing something wasn’t there doesn’t get us very far. The point is, these behaviours are interrupting your lives – all the ‘normal’ people. And you don’t like it, and you worry about us.

I check my work seven times before passing it up to my supervisor. I’m a perfectionist. I’m terribly anxious about my work. But it’s part of who I am. I do better work for it. I am more meticulous than the vast majority of other people. I don’t make as many mistakes. It’s a habit, but before you call it a destructive behaviour, why can’t you accept that it benefits me in as many ways as it harms me?

It would be nice if society as a whole could reconsider the concept of what is a beneficial and detrimental ‘habit’. Traditions hold little more logic than a mentally ill person’s ‘behaviours’. It’s just an issue of how dearly you clutch to these traditions, habits, or behaviours – how much they mean to you, and how much you miss them when they are gone. When everyone cares about them, we get away with our weird little ticks, like obsessively spending money at Christmastime. When it’s only a minority, we get labeled as sick. Chew on that for a minute next time you disapprove of someone’s traditions.

A bit of a rant about applications

You know, there are people who take things too far when complaining about systemic biases against disability. There are limits to what is reasonable. We will not all start to use wheelchairs because a portion of the population has no other choice. But sometimes, it’s worth pointing out an issue, so I’m going to go ahead and say it:

The entire process of applying for scholarships is next to impossible for people with anxiety issues.

I can’t stand it. It isn’t just some chore that I hate. It isn’t just an awkwardness or modesty or lack of self-confidence. It is truly, insanely difficult to get my head around the basic issues involved in applying for funding. This is a bit of a problem, being a graduate student who has not yet procured funding. Let me enlighten you.

***

Part 1 – Writing a letter of intent.

Basically, in this letter, you are asking me t overcome my perfectionism and obsession with accuracy, my social anxieties about committing any kind of faux pas, and my inherent inability to represent myself in a positive light.

The accuracy issue is thus: I can’t tell you want I’m going to do in five years because I could be dead. I could be hit by car. My parents could be hit by a car. Hell, if my goldfish was hit by car my life has basically become a shambles. My illness makes my life seem (to me anyway) inherently unpredictable. We both know that life is unpredictable and that I’m going to do my best to follow my interests while still feeding myself and any possible dependents I have, and that whatever opportunities appear will simply happen. The idea that I can lay out for you my vision of the future and maintain my dedication to telling the exact truth is ridiculous.

Theoretically, anxious people should be good at talking about the future. But we are terrible at predicting it. Thinking about the future consumes our lives, but it doesn’t tend to be a positive future. You want me to paint you a gorgeous picture of success, vibrancy, and strength. My brain regularly tells me that my family will probably be dead, if they aren’t already, and that I have to go visit them and arrange funerals while attempting to mourn and pick up the pieces of my life, meanwhile my house has almost certainly burned down, and there’s all that student debt accumulating and wait, what, you wanted a happy future? Nice to know that you aren’t haunted by waking nightmares.

The faux pas issue is related to the representing myself in a positive light. I can’t boast. I must be modest. I adhere to social rules so carefully and diligently that Marx would have dropped everything to make me a case study. Good people don’t boast. Good people, frankly, are quiet, meek, and just happen to get recognized for their brilliance on the side. They don’t do anything to make it happen. That would be bragging, boasting, challenging, pompousizing…No, I cannot tell you a single good thing about myself, because that would be inconceivably rude.

Not to mention that I generally think I am a horrible person anyway. After all, my own brain tortures me with reminders of how generally crap I am as a human being about three times per minute, all day long and all through my dreams. Hot pincers of verbal destruction sear my mind in a constant stream of abuse. Where, amidst that, do I have time, let alone ability, to find good qualities about which to write? It is simply not possible.

 

Part 2 – Asking for reference letters.

You want me to ask someone for something? You want me to ask them to do something for me? Are you ABSOLUTELY INSANE? Firstly, I’m a horrible person, so they won’t want to help me. Secondly, I’m a horrible person so they shouldn’t want to help me. Thirdly, ARE YOU BATSHIT CRAZY? They are good, proper people, who have lives and careers and things to do, and you want me to ASK FOR SOMETHING? They are busy. They can’t possibly attend to me. There is no way they would ever have the time. I will never, ever get up the courage to ask them. I would rather kill myself. I would rather walk off a cliff and fall onto sharp, pointy rocks, and have my wounds washed with salt water until I bleed to death several hours later. No, no, absolutely not.

***

How is it possible, in any universe, for someone with anxiety to apply for a scholarship or funding with these dialogues in their heads?!? How???

Let’s be honest – applying for scholarships is not likely to change its process because the mentally ill are handicapped when applying. It’s not like one can even declare the mental illness difficulty (the way one might declare being a minority, in some job application processes) – it’s likely to make you lose the scholarship, on account of being unstable (unlike declaring a physical handicap, such as blindness or other physical challenges, which often can make one eligible for scholarships, or earn perseverance points for having survived and for still fighting the fight – that kind of affirmative action does not yet exist for the mentally ill).

But there, I’ve said it. I’ve had my rant. I don’t think that the process is inherently flawed as a whole. I do not have a better idea for evaluating applicants. It is what it is – the best we can do for now. It’d just be nice if one day it were easier for those who have extra difficulty.

A mindful song

Guaranteed, by Eddie Vedder, for the soundtrack of the film Into the Wild, is a beautiful song. It has a gorgeous picked guitar line, and insightful, sad lyrics. It won a Golden Globe for Best Original Song. The movie is also all these things, insightful, sad, beautiful. It tells the story of Christopher McCandless, who travelled across North America, eventually spending a solo winter in the Alaskan wilderness. McCandless eventually passed away in the wild. He was 24 years old. Many have speculated that McCandless may have had a mental illness, or traumatic experiences in his past, and that his trek was an effort to escape. It is certainly portrayed that way in the film.

When I first watched the film, I didn’t know the story was real. The film takes us right to the end of the young man’s life, and right up until the epilogue explained, I expected someone to rescue him. I was shocked, terrified, and full of ache and longing and sympathy. I had vividly dreamed of such an escape. I desperately wanted to get away from myself, and find solace in trees and wind and solitude. Away from everything that made me angry, from tears and from dependence.

One of the hardest lessons to learn from mindfulness is, as Jon Kabat Zinn puts it, “Wherever you go, there you are.” There is no escape from the self, and at times that has been as disheartening and exhausting as any and all stresses that wriggle around in my life.

That’s why Vedder’s song is so powerful. Smack in the middle, is a 2 minute and 5 second silence. You are left alone, at the end of such a film, or in the middle of whatever you’re doing when your playlist winds its way around to Guaranteed, alone with no one but yourself. Perhaps your typing fingers. If the song somehow found its way into a party playlist, there is suddenly no more background – only you and the people in the room. It is a jolt back to reality, as well as a peaceful quiet. It is surprising, unique among pop music, frustrating, relaxing, eerie, and magical. I think it’s rather genius.

Apparently, I’m in the minority. Trying to find a full clip of the song on Youtube was not easy. Most clips cut the 125 seconds of silence in the middle, shortening the song dramatically. I don’t think this is simply about upload time or space – this is about people thinking the silence is useless. It’s not; it’s crucial.

The silence is the ultimate mindful moment. It brings you back to the present. You have to accept its existence and be patient. It’s exactly what we need in this day and age. A little silence, a daring silence, a homey silence. It’s absolutely vital.

Don’t ignore it. Don’t skip it. Don’t miss the rest of the song. Let the silence in Guaranteed be a mindful moment. It’s almost exactly the right length of time for a ‘breathing space’ practice. Welcome it – or practice welcoming it. It’s a reminder that you are always there, even when the world is distracting to the point of insanity. No matter where you go, there you are. Guaranteed.

BPD and films

Having a mental illness generally means there is some part of your life that you have less control over than you would like. That portion is run by Captain Illness. Either C.I. bosses you around, you just have salute him at all times, you need to constantly avoid him, or perhaps he punishes you in random ways. He has the power to discipline you, harm you, confine you, and generally take over when he sees fit. Even if what he controls is how you make your bed (perhaps there is a compulsion to do it perfectly…), his presence is more than an annoyance – it’s a depressing fact of life.

So with BPD lots of people’s C.I. interferes with, say, relationships, completely throwing them off course. C.I. goes all Ahab on our ass and redirects the ship after some crazy, possibly unreal obsession. But I’d argue that Captain I. generally interferes most with my emotions. He has them in an iron grip, and although I have a lot of techniques for dealing with him, there is one environment where I have nowhere to hide.

Watching movies and television.

Last night we watched the new episode of Castle (season 7, episodes 1 and 2, possibly spoiler alerts ahead). From the first five minutes, I was actually shaking in my seat. I could not help it. I tried layering on the blankets, cuddling up to Patrick, knitting while watching as a distraction – nothing helped. I was just that adrenaline high and anxious from watching the show.

Last time that happened was the episode when Stana Katic steps on a bomb. Fuck you, episode whatever that was. I spent nights sleepless after that, shaking in bed. Why? Ahab took hold of the wheel.

Lot’s of people are probably shouting, “No, dear, that’s your imagination going out of control, not your emotions”. Wrong. It’s emotions. It’s emotions because I’m (sadly) actually anxious for Castle and Beckett. It’s emotions because the shows make me sob myself to sleep. It’s emotions because I’m so worked up after watching them that I begin to catastrophize about everything else.

Next argument I have with people – but that’s normal. Everyone gets excited about TV. Really? How excited? Do they lose sleep? Do they have endless nightmares? Does it prevent them from working the next day? Do they cry about it once the episode is over? Or the next day? Or the next several days? Does it follow their every waking thought because once they’re emotionally involved with something it’s guaranteed to follow their every waking thought? Most importantly: do they limit their TV watching behaviour because of their reactions to shows? And I don’t just mean “meh, I don’t like that show” or “I don’t watch it” – I mean, if a friend really wanted to watch it with you, would you be terrified of doing it, enough that you refuse? Enough that it’s broken up friendships? I think you can get that the rhetorical gist of these questions is that I say yes to every single one.

That’s one way that BPD affects my life. There are plenty of others, but it’s a microcosm of the ways that I have to adjust to BPD’s presence. In order to manage my emotions, I have to manage television and film watching. Castle is something I usually save up and watch all at once when I don’t have to work the next day. Castle is also just about the most extreme television I can watch – nothing more intense, or I would explode (correction: I would probably self harm). I almost never see films in theatres any more, because I can’t vet them sufficiently beforehand, the effects are too big, too loud, and too intense, and because I don’t have an easy escape. I warn new friends that I simply will not watch certain things, and they can take it or leave it. I almost never seen shows or films without reading all the spoilers first. I still enjoy the film, but the emotional investment is significantly reduced.

I don’t feel worse off for this. It’s simply a fact of life for me. It’s just my Captain, and I have to respect him. Given that he has been allowing me greater freedom to manage other aspects of my life as I get healthier, I’m happy to continue to salute him on this matter. Cheers, sir.